Assistant Head of School William S. Speers delivered this talk in the A. Felix duPont, Jr. Memorial Chapel on Friday, October 21.
In the late 1980s, I attended a large conference at Princeton University on alcohol abuse. There were panels about the damage alcohol inflicted upon athletic teams, families, the workplace, the brain. There were numerous resolutions and action plans presented for schools and universities. But everything at that conference is now a blur except for one panel discussion involving a mother talking about the death of her young child to a drunk driver. Seated next to her on a large stage was the driver of the car that had killed her son.
This was not the first time these two adults had spoken together. In fact, they had been making this presentation for a couple of years. They were now friends – something that seemed almost impossible to fathom. Yet the mother had reached out to this equally broken and devastated man, trying to find some way to heal, to honor her son's too-short life, to move forward. The man had stopped drinking, and was a recovering alcoholic. Together, they were trying to prevent this tragedy from happening again.
What struck me then, and has continued to do so ever since, was the seemingly impossible generosity of that grieving mother to that grieving man. There was something noble, courageous, even crazy in how she stepped beyond her own pain to his, how she included him in her campaign, how she gave him a seat next to her, how she affirmed his voice, his story along with her own. She knew the two of them were forever linked to this accident; but instead of existing isolated, separated from each other, she heroically, achingly, generously bonded her anguish to his, to save lives yes, but maybe also to restore him and even to mend herself. Paradoxically, two griefs, fused together, generate resilience, purpose, engagement.
I remembered their panel discussion because of two recent examples of radical generosity, one of which was briefly in the news. Last month a young husband, Peter DeMarco, lost his wife, Laura Levis, to a sudden, violent asthma attack. Doctors and nurses tried to save her, but unfortunately she died. Sorrow, comfort of friends, end of story? No. After Laura died, Peter handwrote a letter to the hospital, thanking nurses, doctors, staff, custodians and receptionists for how they cared for both of them during Laura's final days. The hospital staff posted the letter for all to see; somehow the letter became public, was reprinted in dozens of newspapers including The Boston Globe and The New York Times, went viral, then became a feature on local and national TV news. It's almost impossible to read this letter and not be deeply moved: in this man's lonely grief, he reached out not to seek solace or lament his wife's death, but to thank others, thank them by name for how they had treated and supported both of them. He understood, because of his loss, how doctors, nurses, housekeeping staff – how other fellow humans – also suffer, also despair, also question the abyss. But by connecting to them through this letter, Peter bridged across the chasms of his sadness to rejoin a community larger, stronger, more sustaining, than his singular desolation.
My second recent experience with bold generosity occurred over Long Weekend at a wedding for a family friend named Katherine. During the dinner after the service, the older sister Sarah toasted her younger sister Katherine. Sarah spoke eloquently about the majesty of love, joy and marriage. Sarah's toast was all about Katherine and her spouse and their future together, as it should have been; but for many of us listening, Sarah's speech was a courageous declaration of generosity. Four years ago, Sarah herself was married: the wedding and reception took place in the same spot where she was now speaking – but sadly she was now divorced.
Nevertheless, here was Sarah, surely standing amid painful memories, ghosts, dashed dreams – now speaking graciously to her sister about marriage, speaking about love, commitment, relationships, two people starting out into their future together. Who better than Sarah to proclaim the miracle, the work, the exhilaration and the challenge of marriage? As she affirmed their love, you could almost sense Sarah was offering the toast, this advice, these hopes, to herself as well as to her sister.
In our country and the world, we seem to lack such graciousness, such empathy, such daring vision. Our presidential election appears to broadcast our divisions, anger, spite and cynicism. Despite what Ms. Pressman explained to us last week in School Meeting, the rancor, the screaming, the nastiness plummets to new lows daily. Throughout the world, terrorist attacks, wars, massive kidnappings, refugee horrors haunt millions of people.
But assertions of generosity connect us when we are alone, bond us to others who are similarly lost, confused, in crisis. Moments of generosity destroy barriers, they begin healing, they write new narratives. Remember the relatives of those victims murdered in Charleston at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015, how at the shooter's arraignment they stood up and exclaimed, "I forgive you." Where can anyone find such monumental charity, such audacious generosity, within such hurt? Somehow these relatives knew the only way out of their pain was to embrace another person, even if that person had shattered their world. Maybe because of their lacerated lives they were able to peer into the murderer's core, understanding he needed love, forgiveness, help – not hatred, not more violence, not more rejection. An insight bestowed to them through the horror of their loss; a strength to help stemming from their own emptiness; a radical ability to rebuild because of their own seared soul.
A few years ago a teacher told me about a small moment of generosity he'd witnessed in his classroom at the start of the year. A new IV Form student was struggling with a concept, and soon was the only student who didn't get it. The teacher could see this new student's increasing anxiety, but wasn't sure how to deal with the class dynamic. Suddenly a boy sitting near this student raised his hand saying he was confused about the problem. The teacher later told me he was pretty certain the second student actually knew the material, but had raised his hand because he sensed something in his classmate's voice or face, that signaled his isolation, his vulnerability – so he joined him, and through that small, unnoticed act of kindness, the first student now had a companion.
In the poem Kya read, "Hook," by James Wright, the speaker's world transforms from "nothing" to community because a downtrodden man with a hook gives him 65 cents. "It wasn't the money I needed," he realizes. "But I took it" because he understands what he's really been offered, touched by, connected to: another person, similar to him, also seeking resolve, comfort, kinship. That stranger's readiness to give saves the speaker from himself, from suffocating in his own misery and exile.
I fully recognize that raising your hand in a classroom isn't going to end the nightmare in Aleppo, or stop gun violence, or change the tone of this election. I know that. But I still believe fervently that we can transform our narrative, and maybe, just maybe, through spontaneous and absurd acts of generosity we spread hope and possibility to those around us, and to ourselves. Who can tell how far that ripple might travel? Isn't that what we do with "Appreciations" at School Meeting? Isn't that Match Circle and Language Lab and seniors as Big Brothers/Big Sisters? Isn't that what sends over 200 of us into community service on Tuesday afternoons? Isn't that what Victoria has invited us to do in November when we can "Taste the Hunger" of too many other people, and give part of what we have to others? The moments that really matter in our lives are when we are in service for another; the paradox is that when we help others, we also nourish ourselves – but we will starve if we only feed ourselves.
There's a fairly corny, beautifully rendered parable in an episode of the TV series, The West Wing, which encapsulates even in syrupy art form what it means to be possessed by this illogical, restorative spirit of generosity. Imagine one person telling a story to his friend:
"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you, can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
"Then a friend walks by: 'Hey, Joe, it's me, can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'" ("Noel")
If we can get past ourselves and connect to another person – a worried classmate sitting next to us, a stranger suddenly thrust into our lives – then we are gifted the chance to leave our myopic, barren state to join another person, a community of similar broken, hurting, confused people. When we open our eyes to see another's world, we can recognize our own fear, and then we can assert our common, broken humanity – what Bryan Stevenson understood at the end of Just Mercy:
We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I'd always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we're fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we're shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. (p. 289)
Who among us hasn't experienced loss, anxiety, isolation, doubts? Who among us isn't therefore graced and prepared to help, to empathize, to stand with a neighbor? By reaching out, by acknowledging the burden, by affirming our shared humanity, we restore our cracked souls. Such compassion doesn't give us answers to our pain, but it grants us company, hope, fortitude and nourishment for the journey. Such cables endure, embrace, rescue and redeem us all.